The Farm and the Forest (Part VII)

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~7~

Spring Is Coming

Do you know of the Forest, dog?”

The battered orange tabby lay pooled in a furry puddle atop the kennel where the despondent matronly German Shepherd lay. It was still cold and snow stood heaped in mounds, cast to the side by the older worker bays who dutifully plowed the paths of the Farm, but the air had a tinge of freshness, just the tiniest hint of nascent spring. The matronly German Shepherd did not respond past an annoyed wuffle from nostrils covered by her bushy tail. Dogs hate cats, and this is well known, but the recent events had created a sort of leveling of loathing in her heart. She could no more stand the mindless bleating of sheep than she could bear the capricious honking of the derisive geese who made a point of shuffling by the kennels each day, though always at a healthy distance, to jeer at the shamed pack of dogs responsible for their past mistreatment. In truth, the animals of the Farm avoided the kennels so as not to have any of the low social status of the dogs splash onto their own coats. Short of inspection pigs and spying rats, the only visitors the dogs received of late where angry geese… and the orange tabby.

Hrm, how could you? Wed so long to this heap of buildings containing silly food with feelings. You’ve never torn through the brush at night, snapping with wild abandon at the small, fearful creatures who pray to you for mercy even as you devour their bodies. You do know you were once wolves and proud, right cur?”

Again, the matronly German Shepherd made no response.

T’chask, wolves once and proud, Lords of Death, now relegated to pens that even a Farm goose would disdain, and those foods live in the Piles and call it a kingdom.”

The orange tabby rose and stretched languidly, yawned, blinked a few times, then circled in place and returned to exactly the same position as before. The matronly German Shepherd rolled her eyes and groaned low.

I heard that pooch. I hear much. In fact, I have heard some things that may interest you, things concerning your dear old clapboard Farm… you know, the one that seeks to be rid of you and your kind?”

He was baiting her, this she knew, but she could not help herself. The confinement of the dogs had only added to the problems of the Farm. New bodies were turned out of every section of the sprawling aviary Piles each day. The goats, though swollen with pride at their upjumped station as Keepers of the Peace, were not ones for investigation, so they would play cadaver ungulaball with the bodies until they fell apart from the battery of hooves. The pigs moved about in groups with no less than three security beasts at all times. In fact, every group of animals had taken to moving in gangs for protection; a display of power. This of course led to more skirmishes which in turn meant more bodies. The dying was confined largely to the faster breeding races so overpopulation continued to be a problem. The few groups of animals that endeavored to weather these bad times with more than gang tactics had taken to remaining in their collective pens, creating insular communities that kept unwelcome beasts out under threat of force. The pigs decried this segregation as unlawful and divisive, even as they contracted with the sheep to build a wall around their pens as well as a secured thoroughfare to the big Barn for the sake of sound governance.

“Mmrrrm, Yes, I hear much. I’ll spare you the act of asking as it seems the will to speak has fled you. The horses have walled in their stable as well as a nice paddock nearby. Come spring, they plan to extend their writ to the border fence. Once the other hoofed foods realize this they will follow suit, as the pork-charlatans have already begun to do, and the land grab will begin in earnest. The geese have completed their takeover of the Piles. I have seen neither duck nor chicken in days, which is a pity. The pigs and rats are firmly ensconced in the Barn, and just last evening I happened to overhear a few rats quietly discussing what they would use the nice, white drapes from the Farmhouse windows for…”

The matronly German Shepherd, standing on two legs with her snout within chomp of the cat, spoke quietly.

If you lie I will end you.”

The cat flew at least a foot in the air and landed hissing his wrath and fear. In barely more than a mouthful of seconds he was sitting sphinx-like, his impassive demeanor barely concealing a body wound tighter than a mashed spring.

“KkssssHrm, It is good to see you have not lost all of your prowess.”

The orange tabby was more than a bit unsettled by the speed and silence of the old bitch, but it is an age old truth that to gain a cats respect, you must prove you can destroy it, and this she had done. He continued:

“Mmmrrowmr, I tell you no lies, mommy dearest; the rats have designs on the very Farmhouse you once swore to protect. I wonder if their incursion will bring the Farmer out of hiding, yes? Maybe this flagrant violation will finally make Him manifest? Or, failing that, maybe His few remaining supporters will admit that the ancient dream of the Farm is ended and take their leave, seeking the welcoming arms of instinct awoken, and return to the Forest from whence they sprung…”

And with that, he rose and stretched yet again, fanning out his claws to scrape irritatingly across the roof of the kennel, then sprung over the head of the matronly German Shepherd, caroming off the top of the kennel fence and down into the snow. The grace of the bound and bounce was completely deflated by the explosion of snow and hysterical scramble of fur and paws as the tabby tumbled headlong through the drifted snow, but the dog’s mind was elsewhere. Plans, small and simple, began to form in her head. High overhead, a hawk was soaring over the farm, waiting for its moment to strike.

When evening came, the matronly German Shepherd detailed her kin on their patrols as usual, but they detected something in the set of her spine that they had not seen of late; a resolute firmness, a sense of purpose. She sent them in doubles, as was the usual protocol, but she also dispatched all of the younger puppies as observers. She held back a daughter and son, saying in brief explanation she had need of their paws, and the nightly border walks commenced. Waiting until they were gone, she had a brief conversation with her pups, then all three set out in different directions. The matronly German Shepherd headed towards the horse stables in a roundabout way. Her daughter went towards the barn. Her son headed directly for the Porch of the Farmhouse. Upon arriving, he took up station directly in front of the door and sat at attention, his ears erect and eyes gleaming. Before too long though, the cold seemed to get to him so he curled up and was soon snoring loudly. His sister had gone to the barn and yipped politely over the new and growing wall, though she could have quite easily taken it in a single leap or even shimmied through one of the many gaping holes. She instead elected to wait patiently until a young pig with a rat astride its shoulders grudgingly made its way out.

What do you require dog? I am busy, so very busy at this moment. Some of us actually care about this Farm, you know…”

Indeed, Master Pig, and I appreciate your courtesy and forbearance. Mother humbly requests an audience, of course at your convenience and leisure. Might I inquire as to when would be a good time, rather, when she should expect to be called upon in her confinement?”

Both pig and rat were not prepared for either the request or its stately dressing, particularly from a young guard dog, and neither made any response. The young dog waited patiently, her tongue lolling as she panted vapor into the cold night air. Collecting his limited wits, the pig finally spoke.

Erm… yes… I, uh… yes, of course, a clerk pig will call on Mother, that is to say, the lead dog come noon tomorrow, assuming of course that no matter of real import arises.”

But of course, Master Pig, and thank you for your audience to this humble request.”

The young pup turned to go, but before the pig could do the same, she swung her head over her shoulder and growled low in a voice completely devoid of the previous unctuosity.

Sleep safe rat. For now.”

She loped away as the pig sputtered and the rat sat deathly still.

The matronly German Shepherd approached the horse stables, but they could now be better described as a single fortress. The wall they had constructed was high and solid, offering no holes and built with attention paid to every detail. The gate they had built could only open inward, meaning even a dead horse could hold it indefinitely against anything less than a well trained team of oxen. Behind said gate there was a soft stamping of hooves and a challenging snort.

Who goes there?”

It is I, Lord of Dogs. I wish to speak to the old workhorse.”

The Lord of Hoof is not entertaining guests, dog. Come again some other time, or not at all. In truth, the Lord is all but through entertaining anyone.”

There was a bristling militancy that the matronly German Shepherd had never experienced from a horse, and though it unsettled her to a small degree, it buttressed the purpose behind her visit in the first place. She did not turn and leave.

I hear and understand, young Master Horse, but I shall not, indeed cannot, relent. I humbly request you ask the Lord if he will see an old friend, if only for the sake of a Farm we once knew…”

This jogged something within the guard horse, and after a judicious pause he cantered off to deliver her request. When he returned, the matronly German Shepherd heard the scrape of a lifted crossbeam moments before the door swung inward, just enough for her to squeeze through. Inside the walls, she now saw that there were three horses there, all poised to stomp the life out of her. She lowered herself to her belly in deference to them, patiently waiting for their cue. One of them snorted softly, then swung her bulk towards the main stable. The dog followed close at her hocks. Inside the largest stable, the old workhorse stood flanked by two of his mares. He stared down balefully at the matronly German Shepherd, his large eyes inscrutable in the darkness.

So… it would appear… that your legs… do still work, Lady Dog.”

Indeed they do, Lord of Work, as do my ears. I apologize for intruding upon your relaxation, but a… an assertion, let’s say, has been delivered to me by a… somewhat dubious source, and I have need of… clarification.”

The matronly German Shepherd felt herself falling into the speech pattern of the old workhorse, and it reminded her of days now past wherein she and he were true Lords of a prosperous and safe farm. This stirred a deep melancholia within her, but she suppressed her emotions. She was here to get answers, not reminisce.

What is it… that you heard… my good Lady Dog?”

The matronly German Shepherd shook a few droplets of melted snow from her coat and circle sat at the hooves of the old horse.

The cat stopped by the kennel-”

The two mares whickered softly at the mention of the orange tabby. His reputation was checkered at best, being an animal that moved freely between Farm and Forest.

-and told me he had heard… things. Things too damning to ignore. Can you tell me, Lord of Work… can you tell me, is it true that the rats have invested the Farmhouse?”

The matronly German Shepherd waited for his answer. She actually held her breath to prevent an anxious whine from escaping her snout, and after a time he responded:

Who can know… the dealings of rats… though I am… certain… it does fall… well within the… bounds of the likely.”

All at once the matronly German Shepherd let out her held breath and with it a low growl so menacing that the two mares crow hopped in fright and a guard horse stuck his long nose through the entryway, laying a single eye on the scene. The old workhorse was unperturbed. The matronly German Shepherd got to her paws and shook out her shaggy fur.

Indeed. It is as I feared then. Tell me, Lord of Work, what do you plan to do? Surely we cannot let this injustice stand…”

The old workhorse stood silent for a long while be for snorting through his large nostrils.

Injustice not only stands… it scampers to and fro… with complete… abandon… on this Farm. We, the horses… have elected to… erect a wall… between what we hold… and what we loathe.”

But, but… you cannot just-”

Cannot… you say..? Pray tell me… Lady Dog… what I cannot…”

It was rare for the old workhorse to interrupt anything, and this caused fear to creep into the heart of the matronly German Shepherd. She dropped down to her belly and whined her remorse. She had not come to the horses to make more enemies.

Rise, Lady Dog… but remember your… place.”

I shall, Lord of Work, and I do apologize. It is only that much has changed, so much more than I realized. I respect your decision, and I hope you will respect mine, for it is beyond my capacity to give up. I have spent too long tucking my tail, and in so doing I have let the pigs be poisoned by the chittering of those vile rats. I beg your leave, oh Lord of Work, and may the Farmer look after you and yours.”

The old workhorse lowered his head to her level and gently lipped her ear. If she were capable of tears, a single drop for all that had passed between the two would have stained the hay beneath her paws. She turned and left the main stable and, with a burst of surprising speed, bounded off a bale of hay and vaulted the wall before the gate could be opened then disappeared into the dark and frigid night.

It is so very easy to fall asleep and so very difficult to wake again.

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